No less than 14 months after the school first closed over airborne asbestos fears, pupils were relieved to get back to Cwmcarn High yesterday. CAIO IWAN and EMMA MACKINTOSH look back at the school's turbulent journey.
IT WAS the first day back at school after Christmas, just the same as any other year.
But underneath the nervous excitement for the pupils getting stuck in to the new term’s work, there was relief to be back at Cwmcarn High School yesterday.
The 930-pupil valleys foundation school shut in October 2012 over fears that people were at risk after asbestos was found, and everyone relocated to Coleg Gwent’s Ebbw Vale campus.
For parents, pupils, and staff, it has been a long wait.
“We were all adamant that this day would come,” head teacher Jacqui Peplinski said yesterday.
“We are right in the heart of the community here and having that school environment back again is very important. One thing I learned from moving to Ebbw Vale was how resilient everyone was – it’s quite amazing.”
The school’s struggles began back on Friday, October 12, 2012, when Caerphilly council released an out-of-the-blue statement to say the school would be closed for further notice, to allow for “detailed asbestos investigation”.
Three days later the Argus reported on a “torrent of criticism”, aimed at both Caerphilly council and the school, from parents that the closure had been communicated poorly, but governors and some readers insisted that safety was paramount and that the school had acted quickly to protect children and staff.
The council soon admitted the school had been exposed to asbestos fibres, with the substance present in most of the school.
Cwmcarn Leisure Centre nearby was also closed as a precaution, and Caerphilly council said it expected the affected buildings at Cwmcarn High to be closed “for the foreseeable future”.
A specialist contractor advised Caerphilly council to consider demolishing the school, and that although the majority of the asbestos, known as brown asbestos, was sealed and in “good condition”, some was damaged.
The council stressed the health risk to pupils and staff at the school was “low, albeit slightly elevated”.
Teachers’ union NASUWT Wales organiser, Rex Phillips called for more clarity on the test used at Cwmcarn, and asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to look into it.
Some older pupils were allowed to return to a stand-alone part of the school that week, but hundreds of others waited in limbo for news, while the HSE said it was making initial inquiries to find out if there was any basis for a full investigation.
Councillors unanimously agreed to transport pupils, staff and equipment to the defunct Coleg Gwent site in Ebbw Vale, previously earmarked for demolition, at a cost of £1.4 million, calling the situation “unprecedented”.
Plans to demolish the former college site were put on hold at the council’s request, with the authority covering costs such as reactivitating the heating, ventilation, IT and telephone systems.
Three weeks after closure, on November 5, pupils made the first trip up to Ebbw Vale.
Despite the upheaval, the school recorded the best results for 11 to 14-year-olds in Caerphilly county that year, coming out top in maths, English and science.
Weeks later, Cwmcarn’s governors took control of the asbestos investigation, expressing concerns at the way it was being handled.
The decision sparked a war of words because Caerphilly council had planned to have two firms on site looking into the scale of the problem, plans which the governors halted.
Gary Thomas, chairman of governors, who was one of the first original cohort of children to attend the school, said they wanted to commission their own independent inspection first.
Meanwhile thousands signed an online petition asking for a guaranteed rebuild if Cwmcarn was demolished.
In the new year a second report revealed asbestos levels could be a lot lower than first indicated in the Santia report.
This was followed by a dramatic protest in which more than 700 parents and pupils took part, urging the council to re-open the school and stating they felt the council was using the asbestos discovery as an excuse to shut the school and tackle surplus spaces.
Then a third report, this time by independent asbestos surveyor Ensafe, commissioned by the school’s leadership, recommended part of it be reopened to students.
Caerphilly council responded by commissioning its own unnamed expert “to give an impartial view on all the previous reports” and the resulting Ensafe survey suggested a £1.5 million programme of work was needed to make the site safe, something which cabinet member for education Councillor Rhianon Passmore said “vindicated” the council in its original decision to close the site.
The council applied to Welsh government for emergency funding, which was refused, and it wasn’t until April 2013 that councillors agreed to fund the £1million remedial works, news which was met with cheers and champagne by campaigners.
Another option, which would have seen Cwmcarn’s pupils sent to other local schools, was dismissed because it could have led to a judicial review triggered by governors.
Work to remove asbestos began to go ahead in June, with a view to pupils being able to return in September, but in July the tragic death of James Paul, 26, of Abertillery, who had been working at the site meant that the work was put back and pupils did not return until yesterday.
Speaking at the school, Ken James, Caerphilly council’s cabinet member for regeneration, planning and sustainable development, said: “It is one of the happiest days for the village to see all the children walking through those gates. There is a spring in everyone’s step.
“We are sorry that it has been delayed, but there have been circumstances that were out of our hands.”
Cllr Passmore said the council chose the difficult route, but it was the right thing to do.
“There has been a lot of media interest on this and a lot of things that has been said has been fundamentally not the case,” she said. “Our message has been unwavering and we always wanted to reach this point and return to the school’s original site.”
Mr Thomas said he had been associated with this school for 55 years, and as his wife and children had been through the school, it was “a wonderful day” for him.
“It has been challenging for everyone involved, most certainly for the pupils, the parents, and the staff,” he said. “Despite the upheaval of moving to Ebbw Vale, we are delighted to have kept the standards here.
“They have not dropped, in fact, they have gone up which is unprecedented. I put that down to the community spirit, the dedication and loyalty of all involved.
“We were always determined that we were going to come back here. We have worked very closely with Caerphilly council – it’s been a partnership, and they’ve certainly played their part.
“I would like to thank the community for staying with us. It’s good to be back in the green, green grass of home.”
Sixth former Matthew James, 16, said it was “great to be back” as the bus to Ebbw Vale took 40 minutes with roadworks, while 17-year-old Ellie Sage said: “Going to Ebbw Vale has brought us closer together. We could not have done it without the teachers.”
Parent Rebecca Davies, who has a daughter in Year 9, said it was upsetting when the school closed.
“If people had not protested and fought for this school, we would not be here today,” she said. “Everyone wants to move forward to the future now and leave all of this in the past.”
Former pupil Leah Howells, 19, left Newbridge High School in order to further her education at Cwmcarn High School’s sixth form.
She said: “I looked at a few schools but as soon as I came to Cwmcarn I felt like I was home. Everyone was willing to listen if you had problems and even though we were worried about moving to Ebbw Vale, it actually strengthened us as students.”
Miss Howells, who now studies Welsh and English Literature at Cardiff University, agreed that the return to the old site was a testament to the hard work of the pupils and the teachers.